A Drive

I put on socks and shoes for the first time in days. Still comfortable, nothing too fancy. If I wanted to, I could go for a walk, and I could walk for a mile or two without getting blisters. I brush my hair. Pull it into a ponytail. My phone, wallet, and mask are on the table where I left them – a week ago? Two? But I lose a few minutes searching for my keys. My keys are almost always lost.

Then I’m out the front door, down my front steps, past the overgrown juniper shrubs and grasshopper-devoured rose bushes, and onto the driveway. I climb into my car, drop the phone, wallet, and mask onto the passenger seat. It’s hot inside, a dry heat that smells like chemical lemons, a consequence of keeping disinfecting wipes tucked between the seats.  

My first memory is me, sitting in a car seat. The car is gray. I look out the window and can see the exterior. There’s a house. The sky is blue over the house. I live in the house. The car is parked in the driveway. That’s all I know. I don’t remember if we were coming or going. And that’s it. My first memory: a car either arriving or departing.

Today I’m in the driver’s seat. I turn the key in the ignition. The car is definitively rolling backward, away from the house where I live. No particular direction or end point in mind. Just the roll of tires, the air conditioner finally chasing the chemical-smelling heat away, and a song I like on the radio. One street over, a hawk is circling, waiting for me to fly with him. Once I clear the neighborhood, I open the window and I open the throttle and I fly.

The sky is as blue as my first memory. The clouds are brushed wisps. I steer south, away from town, through the twisting back roads leading into tumbleweed. The wind pulls at my ponytail. I stick my hand out, catching and waving the air. This doesn’t feel like the stagnant air I’ve been inhaling through masks and indoor ventilation. It’s hot. Fast. Swirling. Something wild horses breathe. Something hawks soar through. Something tangible filling the dome of the sky.   

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

Playlists

At the keyboard, waiting for words to come, I often flip over to Spotify, looking for new playlists. Always hunting for some melody, some tangible experience I haven’t heard before. Triggering some thought I haven’t thought before. I ask friends on Facebook for songs and create new playlists. I browse playlists already created in genres I don’t normally listen to. I listen to Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” – created just for me! – religiously.

Turn up the volume. There’s the beat. There’s the hum. And my fingers respond to it. They move across the keyboard, trying to find their own rhythm.

I learned to type because we couldn’t afford a piano, an instrument I would still dearly love to learn. What we did have: a typewriter. A clicking, clacking keyboard rather than a melodic one. So, I learned to type, feeling the keys as the stories, like a melody, appeared one letter – one note – at a time beneath my searching fingertips.  

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

3 Writing Tricks To Steal From Fleur Bradley’s MIDNIGHT AT THE BARCLAY HOTEL

A couple weeks ago, I was the lucky duck who received an advanced reading copy of my dear friend’s (hi, Fleur!) newest novel for middle grade readers: Midnight at the Barclay Hotel. My review of the story is up at Criminal Element which you can check out here. But I thought it’d be useful for us, as writers, to dig in and take a gander at some of things Bradley did effectively as a storyteller in this book.

First, a brief sum-up-tion of what it’s all about:

A cowboy, a librarian, a Chief Executive Officer, an actress, and a detective are the winners of a weekend getaway to the Barclay Hotel. At first, the CEO and the detective aren’t convinced they should go – but then the CEO’s son, JJ, and the detective’s granddaughter, Penny, make convincing arguments for a weekend away…and the kids also convince the adults to let them tag along. But when JJ and Penny arrive, they quickly realize that everything is not as it seems in the Barclay Hotel. Rumors of ghosts abound. And Mr. Barclay himself, the hotel owner has been recently murdered with JJ’s mother as one of the potential suspects. With the help of Penny’s investigative skills and the inside knowledge of the hotel from Emma, who lives at the hotel, JJ sets out to clear his mother’s name and maybe catch a ghost or two in the process. 

So, what does Bradley do as an author that we can all steal?

  1. All characters should have their own motivations.

Every single character has a relevant backstory which directly affects the central question of the narrative: Who killed Mr. Barclay? All of the kids have motivation to act: JJ’s mom is accused, Penny wants to be seen as a real detective, Emma lives in the Barclay Hotel and can’t have this mystery hovering over her forever.

Characters need real, personalized motivations for moving through the story. Otherwise it’s hard to invest in them. Characters have to want something.

2. Pitting character motivation against character motivation creates conflict.

So, the kids have the motivation to find a killer, but that killer’s want is “I want to get away with this.” (In a murder-mystery, the motives of the antagonist are kinda straightforward that way.) Now, as the kids hunt down the villain, the villain is going to do everything they can to stop their capture. Perhaps that means leaving false clues. Or booby traps.

Things get delightfully complicated when multiple characters have multiple conflicting motivations. For example, a character innocent of murder but guilty of something else may try to stop the main characters from digging too deeply.

3. Homages to the greats.

Agatha Christie wrote sooooooo many novels. She was and remains the Queen of Mystery. I think it only fitting the Bradley nodded to Christie repeatedly throughout this novel. It serves as a great introduction for new readers and a fun Easter egg for those of us who have read many, many, many of Christie’s novels.

It really is okay for us as writers to acknowledge that we work in “the tradition of _______” most of the time.

With that in mind, who do you think serves as a “literary ancestor” for your own work?

Journeys Through Faladon: The Titan Divide

I was provided an e-ARC of ForgeFiction’s newest release Journeys Through Faladon: The Titan Divide in return for an honest review. It’s been a while since I’ve done a Thursday Review, and I’m running behind on this one as it is — seeing as how it launched two weeks ago, so let’s jump in.

But first I must excuse my tardiness in discussing this title. In the course of a week or so, I lost my computer (kablooey!) and then, as I was working on getting that replaced, I was doing all of my work via iPhone (not recommended) and then that piece of technology got, um, waterlogged. It was one catastrophe after another.

(Which means that I related to the main character of Ürbon the Jödmun — given the fact that this poor guy gets hit with catastrophe after catastrophe — probably a little too well.)

Before jumping into the story line, I think it is necessary to discuss how this novel came about. ForgeFiction — with whom I have no association — is a community-based writing platform connecting writers from across the globe. Basically, you can jump in and start your own story or you can look around and write a chapter in a story someone else has started. Each chapter is essentially a competition. The community votes “yea” or “nay” on whether a chapter is included. My understanding is that Journeys Through Faladon has 40 authors.

40. Authors.

You’d think that maybe the result would be in-cohesive. You’d think that maybe the story would be hard to follow. You’d think it might read like a D&D game where the DungeonMaster lost control of the characters and chaos ensues.

Instead of chaos, all 40 authors have managed to hold on to the thread of action and adventure. I imagine it must’ve worked like television shows — it’s the only example I can think of where multiple creators manage to hold onto the thread.

Centering on U, a raider, Journeys Through Faladon starts with piracy, follows up with prophecies of doom and wonder, and proceeds through some epic battles.

Perhaps due to the “40 authors” thing, the novel is very episodic. One adventure leading into the next.

Considering my own series of catastrophes, I was definitely willing to sympathize with U. First, he’s attacked by an Elven ship which he wasn’t even going to raid. Then he is separated from his captured crew. Then he finds himself lost beneath a mountain when he manages to escape his prison. Then, of all places, he winds up in a dragon’s lair, face to face with an actual dragon. Then a magical axe, Bjarl, decides he’s the chosen one:

“What was now in his hands was an axe of ice and steel, the haft wrapped in soft leather. He recognized the steel of the axe’s pole. It was a metal used by Jödmun craftsmen, a formula of steel and rock substrate, creating a virtually indestructible material. What was more impressive, however, was the ice sculpted atop the pole, a visage of a wyrm, whereas the wyrm’s fiery breath of of steel, forming the blade.

Ürbon knew this axe but could not believe it to be in his hands. There was only one such weapon in existence. Bjarl, the rune axe of legend, crafted by the greatest blacksmith of the Jödmun, Volstagg the Mad Smith himself.”

Journeys Through Faladon

You know you want to find out more about Volstagg the Mad Smith.

One of the most interesting elements in the story for me is actually the race of the Jödmun. In the midst of classic fantasy “races” like elves and humans and dwarves, the Jödmun come in fully realized and very, very superhuman:

Very little could withstand a hit from the tall and fearsome Jödmun. They were a people with flesh quite literally made of stone, a condition arising from a calamity known as the Mountain Birth. But that was a long time ago.”

Journeys Through Faladon

Oh yeah, then a whole race of cave dwelling reptiles decide that Ürbon must free them. You know, if he can escape these caves himself….

It’s a fun ride to watch Ürbon, his companions, and the enemies they meet along the way. If you’re looking for a story with some adventure and a whole lotta action, this is a good choice. The authors have brought a ton of creativity into the fantasy mix, which was no easy feat.

Predictability & control

The chaotic world is trying to get in again. I feel it in the way I want to research things – like how to create vaccines, or running for public office, or how much a billion dollars is really worth. I’ve run out of “free reads” for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wired, and The Economist, which is probably a blessing-in-disguise for my mental health.

I’ve never felt the impact of the outside world so much as now, ironically enough, when I’m home and removed from it.

The outside world feels like crying when I’m making dinner. It feels like the inability to concentrate when reading a novel. It feels like ineffectually cleaning the oven. It feels like terror-Lysoling every scrap of groceries. It makes me feel many things: anger, grief, frustration. Stress to the nth degree, even though the most strenuous things I’ve done are 1. write this blog post and 2. watch Netflix.

I know I’m not alone. Here we all are: figuring out work from home with kids underfoot, who are also figuring out how to learn from home. Trying to budget for God Knows How Long. Listening to politicians. Listening to medical experts. Noticing there’s a discrepancy between what the politicians are saying and what the experts are saying.

I don’t think it’s an understatement to say: It’s really fucking stressful.

Humans do not do well with chronic stress. It literally affects our health. And we’re already facing a health crisis. So, what the hell do we do? I’m no expert, but I ran across a few things that have helped me, and I’m sharing it here so that maybe it helps someone else stay sane in this clusterfuck situation.

I came across a great book called On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger – a reporter who worked at Amazon, Convergys, and McDonalds all in the interest of finding out why low-wage work drives people insane.

(Side note: while I highly recommend this book, I also highly recommend that you read it after the current situation is over. I was in a rage for the first few days of my isolation because my sense of impotence was heightened by 300%.)

In the McDonald’s section, she breaks down an experiment done on rats which discovered that if you remove predictability and control, you create “body- and mind- wrecking” stress:

Put Rat A in a box with an electrified floor and give her unpredictable shocks: she’ll develop the same stress-related symptoms [terrible stomach ulcers] Selye observed in the rats he had to chase around the lab with a broom.

Now put Rat B in the same situation, except play a beep ten seconds before you shock her: she’ll end up with ulcers, too, but far fewer of them. Rat B can’t avoid the shock, but she at least can relax until she hears the dreaded beep. That predictability helps her deal with the stress better.

Now give Rat C the same set up as Rat B – box, shocks, beeps – but add a button she can push after hearing the warning beep that will cancel the shock: she’ll end up with dramatically fewer ulcers than either of the other two. Even that little bit of control Rat C has helps her deal with the stress much, much better than either of the others.” ~Emily Gruendelsberger, On the Clock.

Extrapolating from those scenarios – it feels, to me, like I’ve been placed squarely in Rat A’s box. I don’t know what the presidential updates will upend – are we sheltering in place or having a giant Easter egg hunt? Where are the shocks (Covid-19) coming from? Who knows? There’s no consistent testing. I might be able to go to the grocery store and purchase flour or purchase a disease that’ll throw me in the middle of an already-packed hospital waiting room/ward. And all of this is beyond both my ability to predict or control.

However, while I might not be able to mitigate the stress and pressure coming from outside, there are still predictable, controllable pieces I can manage. I had to think these out for myself, which took some time. Your list of things you can control and predict will be different.

  • I can control and predict my schedule. I work from home. I can get up at the same time every day. I can shower and get dressed and have breakfast and be at my desk at specific times.
  • I can control and predict my limited space. I’ve organized my desk/office space. I’ve integrated a “reading nook.” I suspect the control impulse is why everyone is cleaning everything. **Important note: I can also allow my family to control their spaces and respect that – when we’re all fighting for our own little corner of the world, be sure to give people whatever space you can. Turf wars over a corner of the house only breed more irritation. Knowing that your space will be there, just as you left it, also gives a sense of predictability.
  • I can control and predict what I do. Right now, I have to limit my time online. You know what it looks like: this news article that breaking news this expert says that expert says the death count is this high but look at the survival numbers. I acknowledge there is chaos happening, but I can’t allow myself to wallow in it. I read and watch enough to know the big shifts. But ‘controlling what you do’ is also not about avoiding the negative – it’s trying to accomplish something positive. For example, game night with the family, reading, writing (not necessarily the Great American Novel, though if you’re feeling it….), cleaning, cooking, going for a walk, throwing a ball around. I’m not crafty but I know people making medical masks, puppets, growing plants, and painting.     

You know how kids work better with a schedule (set bed time, play time, craft time, etc.)? You are now that kid. Set up your schedule (and you can freakin’ sleep in if you want – just get up at 1:00pm consistently if that’s your jam).  

Look, I’m pretty sure I’m still gonna get ulcers. But doing these things has helped calm me the fuck down. If you have other things that help you gain predictability and control, please let me know. I’m looking for any tips and tricks for peace of mind – and I’m sure you are too.

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